IN THE END, they were humane. Even wise.
If only the French powers-that-be had shown such judiciousness at an earlier stage, perhaps none of this need have happened. But hindsight, of course, is a wonderful thing.
The mutinies, which had been reverberating around the French army, had posed a massive challenge to the Allied war effort. But should we be surprised? By spring 1917, a million Frenchmen out of a male population of 20 million had been killed in the war. In the recent disastrous Nivelle offensive, there had been 90,000 casualties in the first 24 hours.
The mutiny which all this had provoked was less homogenous than the word suggests, and less conspiratorial. But it was coherent. Soldiers maintained their lines and were ready to resist enemy attacks, but they firmly refused to embark on any more offensives: with a whiff of Russian revolutionary fervour, red rosettes were often worn, and officers ignored. The new French commander, Pétain, now visited troops, determined to address the most obvious gripes. Yes: food supplies and medical provision would be improved; yes: there would be more leave; no: there would be no further offensive until the tanks and the Americans had come.
Pétain had charisma in abundance, and he was genuinely mindful of those under his command. But, in and amongst the glad-handing, there were examples to be made. Mutinous divisions were dispersed, and ringleaders arrested and tried. A chilling total of 554 soldiers were condemned to death. Only 26 executions were in fact carried out but that was plenty enough to leave no one in any doubt that the French High Command was not running scared. They also had succeeded in ensuring the Allies knew little about the mutiny, and the Germans nothing at all. In time, this came to be seen as the enemy’s greatest intelligence blunder of the war.
Inconclusive fighting continued all week as the British advanced along a two-mile front south-west of Lens, by the Souchez river. Attack and counter-attack was the staple, with Germans capturing French trenches on Hill 304 north-west of Verdun and attacking various points along the Chemin des Dames.
There is always the temptation to see those contests which did not belong to any particular offensive as “routine” – but this risks detracting from the enormity of danger and suffering each inflicted. The History of the North Staffordshire Regiment described Lens as: “…a very formidable position, as the numerous houses made excellent defences, and a few troops would be able to hold back an attack…”
However, after fierce fighting, including hand-to-hand in the streets, the attack was called off, since it:
…had been a failure, and, as the enemy had fought skilfully and with courage, it was assessed that they were probably a fresh Division. The total casualties of the 46th Division were 50 officers and 1,000 men.
One of those was solicitor-cum-writer, Charles Masefield, MC, a cousin of the poet John Masefield. A fellow-prisoner later reported:
‘C’ and ‘D’ companies obtained their objectives, and held some of the houses. We were hopelessly cut off by the enemy, who was fully prepared for a big counter-attack, and a box barrage was thrown round us. Men were falling fast from shot and shell, and from bombs thrown into the houses… Captain Masefield fought heroically, and was severely wounded, and died at Leforest, after being taken prisoner…
Attack held special terrors. But, as the diary of Corporal Walter Williamson of the Cheshire Regiment records, drama and danger could erupt anywhere:
29 June We left early in the morning, marching to Watten and taking the train, arrived at Poperinghe again, proceeding immediately to ‘B’ camp, and the following evening took up our position in the front line again at Bilge trench… Wet weather had come upon us again, and the tunnel was ankle deep in water, and we were compelled to use odd planks and derelict petrol tins as stepping stones, which was rather difficult when we got beyond the rays of our one solitary candle.
Thirst troubled us a good deal down here in the stifling atmosphere, and to get water, we would hang a mess tin under one of the many dripping places in our ceiling. This water did not taste bad at all, though the M.O. might have had words to say on the matter had he known…
Our station was used one night as advanced H.Q. during a raid which our boys were making… we had the Colonel, Adjutant, Signal Officer, and the Artillery liaison officer, all here, and bringing their own candles, business was carried on in a blaze of light that was seldom seen on a company station, where it was difficult sometimes to even procure one candle.
The boys went over without any Artillery preparation, and were not long away and the half dozen prisoners they brought in were brought down the sap for examination. The raiding party then made tracks back to the support line. When the enemy recovered from his surprise he battered our trenches cruelly, and for a couple of casualties in the road itself, we suffered about 50 casualties from the resulting bombardment, one shell in particular dropping amongst H.Q. staff at the proper H.Q., causing terrible havoc, and it was nearly dawn before our Artillery sufficiently punished the Boche to make him quieten down a bit.
Yet, even in the midst of destruction, Colonel Feilding’s weekly round-up to his wife contained a paean to the fecundity of French soil:
June 30 I am getting rather bitten with agriculture. No wonder these peasants get rich… They are the most industrious and the thriftiest people I have ever seen, and though during this time of war the work is done entirely by women, children, old men, wounded men… it must be impossible for those who have not seen it to realize what cultivation means in France and Belgium, or to picture the seas of corn and potatoes and roots, extending as far as the eye can reach and further; the forest of hops, weed-less; without a barren patch or a neglected spot anywhere…
Feilding seems to have had the happy knack of rejoicing in evidence of life of all kinds. Perhaps it was merely another manifestation of the immense personal discipline which made him such a beloved commander of the Connaught Rangers. Artillery was pummelling the French landscape into a pulp, whatever he may have written.
Sprawling military encampments were also a great despoiler of the countryside. The first 14,000 American troops had just arrived at St. Nazaire and Pershing and his staff were overseeing the building of communication lines and reconnoitring landing places. His diary for 28th June noted that he had inspected a camp which was:
nearing completion, and seemed very well installed. Later visited a large college which was being turned over to the Americans as a hospital; has a capacity of 300 beds. From there the General went to inspect the docks and our transports — Two sections of our convoy arrived; the 3rd section expected Saturday; the 4th section is expected July 2, with the horses.
Such hustle and bustle was a source of great encouragement to those longing for the might of Americas to lay waste the enemy. Even so, French farmers, attempting to eke a living out of their land, may have been less delighted.
Rapture lay thin on the ground just now, and also at sea. At least 83 ships were lost this week, and over 200 men died when their ships hit mines. One, the trawler, HMS Charles Astie, sank in Lough Swilly on 26th June, and 17 souls perished. The following day, the French naval cruiser, Kléber, hit one off Finistère in the Bay of Biscay and 42 crew died. On 29th June, the destroyer, HMS Cheerful (surely the name was an invitation to tragedy?) suffered similarly just off the Shetlands. At least 40 of the 62-man crew sank in the Atlantic.
A scintilla of good news for the Allies lay in the launching of a formidable Russian offensive. This began on 1st July along a 50-mile front in Galicia. For the past months, their armies had been somewhere between distracted and comatose. Now, with General Brusilov leading the Russian 7th and 11th Armies, three lines of enemy trenches and 12,000 prisoners were taken. If this were to be sustained, it would mark an unequivocal return of Russia to the war effort.
The leader of the Provisional Government, Alexander Kerensky was resolved Russia would continue the war. His resolution was not, alas, proof of capacity. Bolsheviks speared a furious opposition, both to the war and to the Government itself. Kerensky had just returned from a tour of frontline units – more or less a charm offensive with a view to shoring up enough goodwill to get commanders and frontline troops onside – to find his critics growing in confidence. The New York Times reported from Petrograd on 26th June:
German propaganda is busy in Russia. On the Nevsky Prospect, ten minutes from the Winter Palace, little, arguing, expostulating assemblies can be found even as late as three o’clock in the morning. They are arguing about the war. Questions why Russia should shed blood in a new offensive to fill the pockets of Anglo-French capitalists are heard. Assertions that the Germans are the best friends of Russia resound.
That same day, Kerensky noted:
After the Congress of Soviets adopted the resolution of supporting the offensive, I visited a conference of Cossacks and obtained from the regiment committees of the Petrograd garrison an official promise that the garrison would not take advantage of my absence to make a new traitorous attack on the revolution, and then I was escorted to the front where the offensive was to begin. In Tarnopol, military representatives of all the allied countries came to my train car. The representative of Great Britain to the Russian General Staff promised me on behalf of the king that British troops would support our offensive.
A new offensive was, understandably, a source of grave apprehension to anyone unlucky enough to find themselves in the firing line. Vasily Kravkov noted on 27th June:
We are expecting possible gas attacks from the Germans and we have a great lack of gas masks, subject partly to insufficient supply, and partly to negligence of ‘free citizens’ in their safekeeping. The Germans retracted inward, abandoning some of their trench lines; they must be preparing a devil’s trap for us!
Such travails passed by the erstwhile Emperor, still kicking his heels in Tsarskoe Selo, unremarked. His diary that day recorded:
Dear Marie today is 18 years old… After tea, I finished reading a work by Kuropatkin called Problems of the Russian Army. It was very interesting to me.
The irony of his choice of reading was not something which would have occurred to him. Further unrest in the army was suggested by Vasily Mishnin in Gorodok on 1st July:
There are rumours of a new offensive on the south-western front and there are already prisoners from there. The soldiers here are all on the edge, preparing for battle. But some regiments are not leaving their positions and refusing to join the advance.
British commanders did not like Other Ranks getting lippy. They seem generally to have been far better than either the Russians or French at ensuring that they didn’t. Their bigger problem, militarily at least, came in rooting out incompetence. This week saw the publication of the Report of the Mesopotamia Commission. Mesopotamia’s invasion had provoked a series of disasters including, most famously, the siege and fall of Kut-el-Amara. The Middle East had been a graveyard to thousands of British troops, often unnecessarily, and much of their suffering and sorrow could be traced back to administrative deficiencies. General Maude, the present commander, was exempted from criticism, but the Report took a swipe at his predecessor, Sir John Nixon, as well, inter alia, at the previous Viceroy, Lord Hardinge, and Austen Chamberlain, Secretary of State for India.
The invasion of Mesopotamia, site of present-day Iraq, had been undertaken with a maximum of short-term interests in mind: the British stake in the oil-rich region was to be safeguarded, and any Muslim revolt in India pre-empted. Unfortunately, the subtler ethnic and tribal relationships of the region appear to have weighed little, if at all, upon British commanders or their political masters. When General Allenby arrived in Egypt to take command of Allied forces on 29th June, his orders from the British Government were to “take Jerusalem by Christmas”.
Now, of course, it sounds laughably high-handed – not even laughably. High-handedness was a particularly British malaise, and you did not need to be a foreigner to feel the full rasp of it, as the newspaper magnate, Lord Northcliffe, who had been in America since 11th June, could have testified. As head of the British War Mission, he was busily trying to raise goodwill, and hard cash, from the USA.
By now the war was costing £2 million every day, so one might have thought he could reply upon the support of British officials alongside. Not so, however. The British Ambassador, Sir Cecil Spring Rice, author of “I Vow to Thee, My Country”, had been stung by criticism levelled against him in The Times and decided to blame its owner – whom, he also suspected, was after his job. In consequence, the British Embassy did nothing to support Northcliffe, whom Spring Rice seems to have regarded as the equivalent of something picked up under one’s shoe on a walk. Very unpleasant on a hot day.
In truth, Northcliffe was nearly all the bad things people said about him – a cad, a bounder and a bully, at least. But he was also a patriot and a very brave man, as his recent hazardous journey across the Atlantic had shown. Many Americans loved him – soubriquets such as “Man of the War” and “electric engine of the armies of democracy” followed him.
When he met President Wilson on 18th June, he wrote to his wife that the President was “a determined looking gentleman with whom one would not care to be in antagonism…” From a bruiser, that was a mark of respect. He also noted that Wilson:
…is I believe with his family quite a hermit, is always surrounded by a bodyguard of detectives, does not entertain privately, bears his worries remarkably well, is quite humorous and amusing, and incidentally, the most powerful president in the world.
Notwithstanding the enervating summer heat, Northcliffe embarked on a round of visits to major cities, speeches to mass meetings, and individual sessions with the great and the good. He got used to being attacked by pro-German newspapers but, given that he had visited America 20 times by 1917, very few in Britain could have matched his knowledge of the country.
Ever the buccaneer, he cut through conventional niceties without apology when it suited his purpose: during a crisis meeting over oil supplies, he blithely revealed to executives of Standard Oil the contents of a confidential telegram from the British government. This was not merely unconventional, but against explicit instructions. Northcliffe did not care: the Royal Navy was dangerously low on oil, and desperate situations required desperate remedies. He got what he needed.
No such swift succour awaited those in Europe who languished under the cosh of the Royal Navy’s blockade. One unintended victim was the Australian Ethel Cooper who had had the bad luck to get stuck in Leipzig when war broke out. Just now, she was in the throes of appealing to the Dutch Ambassador in Berlin for his assistance in getting her out of Germany. Hunger had reduced her weight by now to a little over six stone, and her diary for 24th and 25th June was despairing:
…on Thursday evening we were out, just for a walk, there was no moon, and we found the streets all unlighted. Now we hear that aeroplanes have been dropping bombs on Hamburg and Bitterfeld! It is only by word of mouth that one hears such things — the papers are silent.
Even in the grip of hunger, however, she knew whose side she was on:
The drought goes on, and the harvest is ruined. Disgraceful enough, when by day you hope that the harvest of 75 million people may fail and by night hope that bombs may fall on the town you are living in, but that is what we have come to.
Food is forever a source of fascination. It is virtually impossible to imagine hunger, unless one has experienced it – but not hard at all to understand how, for those whose diet was monotonous rather than insufficient, edible delicacies could confer a great sense of celebration. Wilfred Owen, who had been declared unfit for service and sent to Craiglockhart Hospital outside Edinburgh, received a visit this week from Nellie Bulman.
The good lady had obviously decided he deserved a treat. He wrote to her later:
A good friend might have sent me strawberries, but only a very special friend could have remembered the cream!
Mrs Bulman’s son, Bill, and her daughter’s fiancé, had both been killed in action. In the same letter, Owen faced up to her sorrow:
I have endured unnameable tortures in France; but I know that I have not suffered by this war as you have and are suffering. I felt your sympathy with me out there; but now, my dear Aunt Nelly, it is all on my part.